Treyarch: Activisionâ??s new war machine

Treyarch: Activisionâ??s new war machine

By Rob Crossley

June 1st 2010 at 3:08PM

Develop interviews the studio now at the centre of the Call of Duty battleplan

It’s difficult not to accuse someone of favouring a spot of hyperbole when they use phrases such as “crank the level up to eleven”.

Clearly in the first part of our interview, Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia calls upon a vast repertoire of power-quotes, overstatements and verbal embroidery. He’s confident, open, witty and clearly passionate. But crucially, he’s hard to please. He strikes you as the sort who would de-tag a Facebook image of Call of Duty if it dared look anything less than perfect.

As such, Lamia exhibits the ideal mindset for any studio head: He can be confident and audacious for pitching to publishers, and uncompromising and obsessive when helping craft a game.

”People play a lot of Call of Duty, their expectations are incredibly high and so they should be. We have to earn it every time. This is the biggest franchise, and that’s not to be taken for granted,” he says in the interview below.

Call of Duty: Black Ops, as the numerous previews across the web will attest, is the sum of Lamia’s traits. It’s a perversely detailed, distinctly cinematic and unfeasibly dazzling affair. Never before has Treyarch’s output shown so much potential, and for the lawsuit-beset publisher Activision, the studio’s move into fifth gear couldn’t have come at a better time.

Call of Duty is a massive brand, and already, the hype surrounding Black Ops is huge. Is this helpful? How much attention do you pay to it? Does it set expectations too high, to the point where you’re going to get a backlash?
LAMIA: Is there any fear of it? No. It’s embraced. Long before we announced this game, our attention, our focus, and the goals for the team were [set] incredibly high.

We made a decision a couple of years ago to just focus on Call Of Duty and that decision comes with – literally –changing how we ran our business at Treyarch. We’re a big studio, with a lot of experienced developers, [and] just focusing on Call of Duty and being able to make the best game we possibly can… there was a dramatic decision to go from this [opens arms wide] to this [channels hands close together]. You may understand in your own business what that means for everything going on internally.

We set very high standards for ourselves. I really just want the game to speak for itself. I really think there’s been enough talk about the franchise, there’s been enough talk about what people think we’re making, there’s been enough talk about everything.

We need to bring this whole discussion back to what I feel is the experience of the game that we’ve been working on for a year and a half now.

JOSH OLIN, COMMUNITY DIRECTOR: Something I’ve observed as community manager – we also have an internal community that I can look at and get feedback from – is that the people at the studio have been bursting at the seems to talk about what they’ve been working on.

LAMIA: It’s because they’ve been reading all kinds of stuff.

OLIN: They’re so passionate, they’ve been reading on forums, they want to start to reveal it, and now that we are it’s really motivating them.

LAMIA: I’m coming up on fifteen years of game making. This is the hardest-working, most determined team I’ve ever worked with. They are just super-focused on making the best game they can.

I just want to talk about an internal milestone we had with the game last October. We had finished making the slaughterhouse level and it was good. It was really good. It wasn’t good enough.

People were working really hard, and to come out and say their work was good but not good enough… that’s not something that I, or we, would have done in the past. It’s a good example of where are minds are at, and where they should be as far as I’m concerned.

I wanted to crank that level up to eleven. I wanted to attain a different level of emotional intensity. We looked at everything from the gameplay, to the visual effects, everything.

People play a lot of Call of Duty, their expectations are incredibly high and so they should be. We have to earn it every time. This is the biggest franchise, and that’s not to be taken for granted.

Do you feel you have more responsibility [with the franchise] after what’s happened to Infinity Ward?
LAMIA: In short, no, because we already have that. As far as I’m concerned, this was our mindset before anything happened [at Infinity Ward].

The other reason I don’t think that is because Infinity Ward still exists. There’s a lot of talented people there. There’s a team there and, clearly, they’ve undergone some changes.

I’ve worked with a lot of the guys there, I’ve worked with a lot of the guys since the beginning of this, and I’ve worked with a lot of the guys who left. There’s still a lot of great talented people over there, and they’re going to go on and they’re going to do things.

OLIN: Whatever happens at executive level – we’re still teams of game developers. Not once have my team got an email along the lines of ‘oh, now everything is on you guys’. It’s not like that at all. We’re putting [the expectation on ourselves], we have to. It can’t come from the outside.

LAMIA: We’re committed. We’re committed in a way that’s pretty uncompromising and we’re very critical of ourselves right now, and we’re not so concerned with what’s coming from the outside.

It’s understandable that you want to make the best Call of Duty game that there’s ever been. With Infinity Ward at a diminished state right now does it make Treyarch the de facto Call of Duty studio?
LAMIA: It’s literally not something we talk about. We’ve been making this game in the last year and a half. The events that have transpired in the last couple of months were unfortunate, but they don’t have much of a bearing.

We’ve been in full production and full swing. The decision to focus entirely on this game was made long before Modern Warfare 2 even came out.

OLIN: I think what put us in the best position right now, to make the best game we’ve ever made is the fact that we’ve had such a long tenure in the franchise. We really understand the toolchain, we really understand what Call of Duty is about, we really understand the community – we know what the fans like, what they don’t like, and how they play our games.

LAMIA: It’s our third Call of Duty game this generation of technology alone. It’s our sixth game this generation as Treyarch. Everything is laser-focused on Black Ops.

I don’t know else how to say it. This stuff [at Infinity Ward] has happened, we understand it, but it’s kind of like when you have over 200 people internally working – that’s a big boat and it was going in a direction long before what happened over the last few months.

OLIN: We can’t let it distract us. We’ve got to stay focused on what we’re already doing which is making the best Call of Duty game we can.

How do you view your competition from EA and Medal of Honor?
LAMIA: I’ve no idea – I haven’t seen any of it.

OLIN: The competition is going to be great this year, between Medal of Honor and HALO: Reach – there’s a lot of great competition this year especially in the shooter market.

Do you consider Halo Reach part of the competition?

LAMIA: I think so yeah, it’s a first-person shooter, they’re all competitive. But it doesn’t matter. Honestly, what we’re making is our game, and I don’t think Black Ops is going to be anything like their [EA studios’, Bungie’s] games.

I can tell you that none of the competition has anything to do with what we are creating.